Saturday, April 9, 2011

Across the River and Into the Trees

I don’t like to drive a car in Bali. For one thing, the steering wheel is on the wrong side, which means that everything else is flipped the wrong way. This is continually confusing to me. Aside from that, fully 90 percent of the people on the road here are lunatics, escapees from the asylum. Oh wait, they don’t have an asylum here, and therefore they need not have escaped. They are driving test flunk-outs, unlicensed operators, maniacs, NASCAR racers, Evil Knievil wannabees, brainless zombies. What can I say? This is the way it is, folks. I wouldn’t lie. Speed is everything. Life and limb mean nothing.

Nonetheless, sometimes one simply has to drive. Such was the case last night when I was called upon to take my wife to the airport for a sightseeing trip to America. Rather, I should say I had to drive the car back home after she drove us to the airport.

Oh well, it’s just this once, right? Just this once maybe twice a year. Damn the USA. I wish it would sink to the bottom of the sea.

I have two problems with driving really--aside from the wrong-sided steering wheel issue, that is. One is that my MS, generally sleeping or sunbathing here, rolls suddenly awake at the reality of a challenge. I don’t mean that it opens its eyes, blinks and few times, rubs the sleep out, and proceeds. I mean it bolts straightaway upright as if suddenly drenched under a bucket of cold water--tense, trembling, eyes as wide as saucers and darting to and fro like frightened ravens. Yes, I’m still here! What, did you think I was gone?

The other problem I have, especially at night time, is that I can’t see worth a damn anymore. A recent visit to the eyeglasses store revealed that even the maximum adjustment fell woefully short of correcting the problem.

On the way into the airport area my wife carefully pointed out landmarks and detailed the methods by which I should return to the main road, and thenceforth to our home. And it all seemed pretty straightforward at the time. You just turn around and go the opposite direction, right?

So I put her luggage on the curbing, we exchanged kisses and goodbyes, and then we were off--she on a 38 hour journey to America, I on a ten mile return trip to Biaung.

But wait! In the brief time it took for us to park the car, set out the luggage and exchange farewells, someone had changed the entire network of roads by which we had come! Suddenly the big white statue my wife had pointed out on the way in had moved to another spot altogether, and had sprouted multiple roads like the spokes of a wheel whereas previously there had been only two. Was this even the same statue as the one she had shown me not ten minutes ago?

Without any trouble at all, I took the wrong turn at the white statue.  The road I took did not lead back to the traffic light and the Bypass (which is what they call the main road here, strangely enough). No, this road, starting out wide and then shrinking down to the width of a broccoli stalk, conveyed me into a maze of motor bikes, countless Circle K stores, and small roadside bars featuring blaring music.

With considerable trouble, then, I turned the car around and headed back toward the big white statue, straining my eyes for the sight of the thing like a sea captain searching the horizon for a light house.

Imagine my relief upon finding that it had moved back to its old spot smack dab in the middle of the entryway to the airport. Thank God for small miracles. And large, unusual ones too.

One mistake, one stutter of cognition, one stumble in the dark--not too bad, really, for one stricken with this combination of MS and blindness. Here was the Bypass after all--Bali’s own version of the freeway, where there is no speed limit, no lanes as far as practice goes (despite those strange white lines that someone has painted on the pavement), and no holds barred. My next destination--the next landmark on my mental roadmap to home, was to be the next big statue--this one bigger, wider, taller than the first, radiating roads to Kuta, to Seminyak, to Sunset Highway, and to Sanur (and thence to Biaung).

And it showed up just like it was supposed to do--looming, brooding, unspeakably grand in the night, like a sudden ship-smashing rock in a stormy sea.

Now at all hours of the day and night cars and motorbikes swim fretfully around this rock, pushing and shoving, shifting and accelerating, drifting swiftly from left to right and back again as if pulled quite against their will by some drastic current.  It seems to attract motorists like a strange magnet. In fact, I do believe that not a few people come out from the comfort of their homes just to go round and round this statue. Is a terrifying thing to navigate--both reassuring landmark and treacherous obstacle..

You pass one road, you pass two, you pass three--and then you take the fourth. Remember? Simple, is it not?

Well, I passed four and took the fifth. The fifth road, as it happens, is the one that goes back to the airport. And yet, as far as I was concerned, I was surely on my way back to Sanur. Until, that is, I passed the Surf Shop once again with its tall red lettering--very familiar, that--strange, are there two of them? Next I found myself ducking as an incoming 747 skimmed the top of my wife’s little black car.

So back again to the statue, the Rock, the Gibraltar of Southern Bali. One road, two, three . . . four . . . and yes five--again, five--and I was once again on my way back to the airport!

This is where MS becomes really annoying, folks. Suddenly it doesn’t seem interesting or strange . . . It seems only acutely, maddeningly, infuriatingly annoying.

Back to the statue, that demon of night. Back to the jostling bikes and cars, pushing, elbowing, dashing and darting. Back to the search, the increasingly desperate search for a single road, the one that leads home.  

Use the force, Luke.

I could tell you that I had no further trouble on my way--but that would be a lie. I could tell you that I had been cured of MS by the sun and simple life of the tropics, as I have often enough told myself. But that would be a lie too. It’s there. It never goes away, and never intends to. It just rests while you rest, and wakes when its host is called upon to function like a normal person.

What’s the solution?

Next time take a taxi!

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